Momus honors music’s eccentrics on ‘Turpsycore’

by Devon Fisher

Special To The Japan Times

Twenty years ago the Shibuya-kei music scene was in full swing. The charts were filled with some of the most daring, artistic pop music this country had ever heard, courtesy of artists such as Cornelius, Pizzicato Five, Original Love and Kahimi Karie.

Among these musicians was Nicholas Currie, better known as Momus, who left the ruins of his native Scotland’s post-punk scene for the vibrant life of Shibuya-kei, which reinvented Japanese pop as a cultured realm of literate, postmodern music that drew inspiration from an astonishingly wide variety of obscure sources.

Before the rise of Shibuya-kei, it would have been almost unthinkable for a song like the Momus-produced Karie single “Good Morning World” to top the Oricon rankings — a track that married lyrical references to The Fall’s Mark E. Smith and French singer-songwriter Jacques Dutronc to musical backing sampled from cult prog-rock group Soft Machine — but that’s exactly what happened in October 1995.

Never content to rest on his laurels, Currie, who has been living in Osaka since 2010, has been keeping incredibly busy in the years since the Shibuya-kei bubble burst. He has put out more than 20 albums, been involved in various art projects, published five postmodern novels and produced a documentary about the cultural connections between Japan and Europe titled “Europe-in-Japan.”

With a tech-focused novel titled “Popppappp” also due to come out soon via experimental German publisher Fiktion, last week, Currie released his largest musical project yet: a triple album made as a tribute to pop music’s so-called eccentrics. It bears the playful title “Turpsycore”, taking its name and spirit alike from Terpsichore, the Greek Muse of dance.

Speaking from his Osaka apartment, Currie seems incredibly comfortable with his hectic schedule. Fittingly, the apartment is a minimal, chic space that he has furnished in Swedish style, resulting in a fusion of Western and Eastern aesthetics that is as Momus as the man himself (and which he has photographed extensively for his frequently updated Tumblr page). I caught him between an extended residency in Sweden and a book launch in Berlin, during which he was in the middle of writing a new novel and preparing to go back to Europe for a tour in April.

Though the time is right for a revival, “Turpsycore” steers clear of anything sounding like Shibuya-kei.

“Shibuya-kei is very meaningful to me as a historical label describing things that happened in Japanese pop music culture in the 1990s,” he says. “Insofar as culture is always haunted by the ghosts of the culture that went before it, Shibuya-kei haunts things like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. In order to haunt successfully, something must be dead. So Shibuya-kei is definitely dead, but well-documented and haunting quite efficiently.”

Currie explains that the reason Shibuya-kei can be diagnosed as dead even when its influence lives on, mainly comes down to the area of Shibuya itself — the Osaka-based expatriate is no fan of the neighborhood that gave the musical movement its name.

“Shibuya was a transport hub and little else. Then it became a hip area, attracting Tokyo’s most cosmopolitan cafes and switched-on culture stores,” he says. Currie refers to this as the time of “Saison Culture”: “a late-Showa Era phenomenon driven by the sensitive and refined businessman (also poet and ex-communist) Seiji Tsutsumi. Shibuya-kei emerged from that Shibuya,” he says. “But Shibuya today is just an overblown shopping district, summed up for me by the disappointing Shibuya Hikarie center.”

The center Currie references is a 38-floor shopping and entertainment complex that is attached to Shibuya Station and opened in 2012. Always looking forward, though, he wastes no time mourning the past.

“Things often cycle like that: An area is dull, then gets interesting, then goes dull again. Things can be odd, and then get hot, and then get over-familiar and over-sold. You have to keep starting again,” he says.

Currie confesses that he “doesn’t follow pop music in Japan at all now,” favoring Japanese avant-garde music from the 1960s for his personal listening pleasure. Nevertheless, he has taken quite an interest in pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. One of the tracks on “Turpsycore” began as a post on his Tumblr in March 2014. Currie wrote a biography for one of the characters from Kyary’s “Mottai Night Land” video (visible at the two-minute mark), and that then spun off into the whimsical track “Ultra-Loyal Sheepdog.” Currie explains that, with both the post and the song, he created “a simulacrum of Japanese stereotypes of English, notions of cuteness in Japan and notions of sheep,” adding that he is “fascinated by the way sheep are portrayed (in Japan) — a land in which one never sees an actual sheep.”

On “Ultra-Loyal Sheepdog” as well as the rest of “Turpsycore,” Currie pays proper tribute to the artists — some famous, some less so — who, like him in his Shibuya-kei days, brought a more literate, worldly and bizarre perspective to the realm of popular culture, refusing to stagnate or get “over-familiar and over-sold.” He quotes from William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” on “The Dowser,” tips his hat to Lou Reed on “Following” and devotes two of the album’s three discs to covers of songs by David Bowie and Howard Devoto.

While Bowie needs no introduction, Devoto is a more eccentric choice. Currie had no shortage of praise for the Magazine frontman and one-time Buzzcocks head.

“Devoto wrote the most intelligent lyrics of the post-punk period,” he says. “He wasn’t afraid of referencing Dostoyevsky, Proust, Kafka, T. S. Eliot. An interesting psychology underpins his lyrics: He has a ‘Napoleon complex,’ a will to power, even some components of sexual sadism, but he also throws in a lot of doubt and self-irony, self-mockery.”

On Devoto, Currie also notes that “there’s a grandiose, sweeping side, but also a sense of absurdity and futility and even self-sabotage, self-spiting. There’s also an idiot glee, a fairground rush, a darkness with a lot of twinkling in it.”

Of course, although he would be far too humble to admit it, Currie could have just as easily been talking about himself.

“Turpsycore” is in stores now.